Photos, many nude,
of two innocent girls. Art?
A lyrical and lovely book, The Effects of Light, by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, will haunt you, just as the photographs in it haunt their subjects.
Main Character Kate Scott has a good life: she's a graduate assistant with a soul-satisfying best friend and a new man rich with potential.
But she has a past her friends don't know: she is one of the "Ruth Handel girls," two sisters famous from a series of art photographs that chronicled them as they grew. The photos, many nude, sparked a controversy that impacted Kate's life in a huge and unexpected way.
Though she's run from the recognition, a letter calls her home, and she is forced to face her past and look honestly, not only at the pictures but also at her life and the way she was raised.
This is a nearly perfect novel: a joy to read, sweet and funny and heartbreaking in turn, but always compelling. Ward's characters are fully developed: they make decisions (sometimes good, sometimes disastrous), face the consequences, and muddle through, as we all do.
It also raises important questions: where is the line between art and pornography? Between art and exploitation? How far must a parent go to protect a child?
I do have a minor quibble with the structure. The point of view moves back and forth between Kate/Myra (13 years after the last photos were published) and one of the sisters (it's not immediately clear which one), narrating from the past. The switches are handled well, and they go smoothly.
Or, rather, they would. But the author has chosen to write one POV in past tense and the other in present. I believe I understand why (I cannot explain without spoilers), but I found it obtrusive. The writing was so liquid and smooth, that the transition between points of view would have been seamless if tense had been consistent.
Beverly-Whittemore also left a loose end, but I cannot speak directly without spoilers. I'll say only this: Jane, one of the supporting characters, expresses a deep, lifelong regret, and when Kate pulls out the stack of prints, I thought the last one would relate to Jane's regret, but it didn't. So as a reader who tends to remember details (and look them up later: P. 87, in this case), I was left saying, "But, wait! That doesn't make sense."
The ending is a bit shocking, and one aspect of it (it's related to the young girl's point of view, but again, saying more would spoil it) is a bit contrived and waltzes right up to the cliché border without quite going over.
The finest fiction drives a writer to her computer, and The Effects of Light definitely made me want to write. Even more, it made me want to create transcendent art with my fiction.
Or, to borrow Beverly-Whittemore's words, "I want to be like the artist (Kate's) father talks about, the one who stretches our culture for us, who makes room for a glorious, expansive future."